“But Elsevier bought Mendeley and SSRN, and they’re OK, aren’t they?”

May 10, 2017

This tired old argument came up again on Twitter this evening, in light of Elsevier’s me-too announcement of a preprint archive:

Brian Nosek‏: Elsevier enters the biology #preprints space: https://www.elsevier.com/solutions/ssrn/biorn
Brian Lucey‏: I’ve used SSRN from its inception. Never ever felt it as anything but useful. That’s not changed with Elsevier.

And elsewhere in the same thread:

Me: We want preprints to be supported by community-owned initiatives that will not try to take total control.
William Gunn: Well, you said the same stuff about Mendeley and it wasn’t true then, either, so…

So what’s the problem? Mendeley and SSRN are still around, right

Yes, they are. But they continue to exist only by the grace of Elsevier. At any moment, that could change. And here’s why.

Subway is a chain of fast-food outlets that makes sandwiches. As it happens there is a branch in Cinderford, the nearest town to where I live. Which is nice.

Now everyone knows and understands that Subway is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s fine: no-one resents it, because it’s what it is. If the Cinderford branch makes money for them, they’ll keep it open and everyone will be happy. But if it doesn’t, then they’ll close that branch and no-one will be surprised. Because Subway’s mission is not to bring dining options to rural England, but to make money. No harm, no foul, that is just what they are.

But by the same token, Elsevier is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s not a controversial claim, it’s a simple statement of fact. And it’s not a criticism, it’s just recognising reality. We don’t even need to resent it: we just need to recognise it, and make our choices accordingly.

Now, from Elsevier’s perspective, Mendeley and SSRN, and indeed BioRN, are simply branches of Subway. They exist to make money for their shareholders. That’s their mission. Once more, not a criticism: just a fact.

But what this means is that the moment they are not making money, they will be shut down, just as the Cinderford branch of Subway would be. And, for that matter, just as BioMedNet, ChemWeb and ElsevierEngineering were shut down. Because Elsevier’s mission is not to further scholarship, it’s to make money. Again, not a criticism: just a fact.

What does it mean for Mendeley and SSN to “make money”? It may be that these branches of the Elsevier empire provide very little in the way of direct revenue. But someone will have run the numbers and shown that what they cost to run is less than their value to the corporation in terms of visibility, PR, drawing customers into other Elsevier products, etc. If it weren’t so, then they wouldn’t be running these services — because their responsibility is to shareholders, not scholars.

And you can bet that as soon as they day comes that they conclude Mendeley and SSRN are not paying for themselves, those services will go down in flames.

Now. It’s fine if Subway run their Cinderford branch for eighteen months and then decide it’s not working out. if they close it, I can just go down the road and get a kebab or a Chinese. But it’s not fine if scholarly infrastructure vanishes, or changes its terms, or becomes available only to members, or what have you. We need to be able to rely on scholarly infrastructure. Which is why in the end it needs to be owned and run by the scholarly community.

This is why I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure, which lay out the conditions for a service to be reliable, sustainable and safe from hijacking. (I expect to write more about the Principles some time soon.)

The bottom line is just this: Elsevier’s mission is money and their duty is to shareholders. But our mission is research and our duty is to the world. We and they are simply not aligned. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide and charge for useful services. But it does mean that they can’t be allowed to own and control infrastructure.

That’s why no-one should submit preprints to BioRN. Let this effort move directly from cradle to grave without passing Go. There are already plenty of good preprint options for bioscientists: PeerJ preprints, BiorXiv, arXiv’s q-bio category, the whole ASAPbio initiative) and even for palaeontologists in particular (PaleorXiv).

Use those. Don’t give Elsevier control over scholarly infrastructure.


11 Responses to ““But Elsevier bought Mendeley and SSRN, and they’re OK, aren’t they?””

  1. protohedgehog Says:

    Out of interest, is there a list of services etc. that Elsevier has developed or acquired that have then been shut down?

  2. Stuart Taylor Says:

    @protohedgehog – not sure that’s altogether relevant. “I’ve fallen 29 floors and I’m ok so far..”

  3. Agreed, and for example Google did kill Google Code.

    But we should also acknowledge that PeerJ or github.com are corporate, and that bioRxiv is the product of one private institution (CSHL). None of these is community managed nor has a clear ‘duty’ to preserve our work long term.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Marc, you are dead right: there are many dimensions of of what makes for appropriate scholarly infrastructure, and we do need to evaluate contents on all of those criteria. (That may well be the subject of the next post.)

  5. Fair Miles Says:

    You’ll be surprised as how many researchers on top of ‘success stories’ still don’t understand “that (you name it) is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders” and how that drives the (local) scientific system to unfortunate destinies. Maybe because it is still convenient to first get your Nobel Price (typo there, sorry) to be under a strong spot from where to claim how you regret the path to get it?

    Still, I must say that governments and public administrations also want to appeal to their ‘shareholders’. And, unfortunately, we shareholders can be pretty brutal sometimes…

  6. Pandelis Says:

    I guess the safest option are the infrastructures of public institutions whose shareholders are the public (at least in principle). I refer to the potential hidden in the vast infrastructure of institutional repositories. I know that many people, myself included through the COAR working group ( https://www.coar-repositories.org/activities/advocacy-leadership/working-group-next-generation-repositories/ ), are working to create a networked system of institutional repositories as a viable publication and quality assessment alternative to commercial publishing (be it elsevier or peerj) and indirect citation metrics…

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    In principle, I agree. In practice, I think IRs have been terribly disappointing because of the fragmentation problem they cause. I wrote more about the issues here, four years ago. (Can it really have been that long?!)

    On one level there is terribly obvious synergy between preprints and the AAMs that are the usual inhabitants of IRs: they are basically the same thing, in fact. But on another level, I deplore the lack of meaningful IR interoperability, and I wonder whether a monolithic solution would be better.

  8. Pandelis Says:

    I agree with the issues you point out in your other post and I can assure you that all of them are on the agenda of the COAR working group.

    When I joined the group a little more than a year ago, I was amazed to discover all the work done by librarians to curate, classify and preserve data and metadata, that extend far beyond the research article and the trivial metadata we fill in the journal submission forms. This infrastructure and expertise to properly handle all this amount of data cannot be matched by publishers. It is thanks to this work that we can be certain that all the richness of the world’s academic knowledge is properly archived and preserved. So, this is something to acknowledge and respect that I was not aware of before joining the IR community.

    Again, the issues you raise are real but manageable. We will soon publish our recommendations that will address most of them and hopefully, we will also present tangible examples of how an upgraded version of interoperable IRs can regain the trust of the researcher not just for archiving end-products but also for facilitating other stages of the research cycle.

    So, despite previous experiences, I would stay tuned to this channel for a little longer!

  9. C Hsieh Says:

    I’m creating a website, and will have it launched sometime in the next 2 months or so. The website’s purpose is manifold, but suffice it to say that it will be designed to make scholarly work more accessible to the public, and in a fun, engaging way.

    My question is this: If I make the website a .com, will that unnecessarily turn off prospective users? Given some of the issues raised in this blog post, will users perceive that there is a long-term goal to make a profit, and become bait for an Elsevier? Should I make it a .org instead, if I want greater traction? Any commentary welcomed.

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    C Hsieh, that is a good point. Ultimately your work will be evaluated by more substantial criteria than the last three letters of its Internet domain; but you are right that first impressions count. For that reason, I would favour a .org (or a .net) over a .com. (No-one seems to know how Academia.edu, which is not a university, got a plainly inapplicable .edu domain.)

  11. […] internet), but in the last few years traditional corporate publishers have moved to grab land in an attempt to monetize preprints and the resulting scholarly infrastructure and journals that will be building on preprint servers. […]

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